When you listen to Travels in the South, Chris Stamey’s first album in over ten years (and if you are any kind of self-respecting fan of intelligent power-pop, you really should listen to it), the first thing that hits you is how young Stamey sounds. It’s not just his voice, although it’s still as spry and chirpy as ever. The songs on the album just don’t sound like the product of a middle-aged songwriter making a long-anticipated artistic statement. It’s not bloated self-parody (Lou Reed) or a soulless commercial aside (the Rolling Stones). Indeed, rock’s middle-aged crowd could learn a thing or two from Stamey, who chose not to release any music at all for over ten years, because, as he put it to me: “I didn’t have much to say.”
“I had found a lot of happiness,” Stamey continued. “In the past, I’d written a lot of records built on romantic angst, and I just didn’t feel that way anymore.”
Cultishly adored by power-pop record-collecting geeks as well as other musicians who were greatly influenced by his work with the db’s and the Sneakers (think Yo La Tengo, R.E.M. and They Might be Giants), Stamey has managed to mostly elude the hand of fame, and one gets the sense that he’s better off for it. He’s modest and even-headed, and doesn’t feel the need to reaffirm his celebrity status every couple of years with an uninspired “me!” album. In fact, Travels in the South, more than perhaps any previous Stamey effort, is disarmingly heartfelt.
“I wanted to make an album that touched on broader, more universally meaningful themes. I guess you could say that the kinds of records I like are more old-fashioned.”
You mean you’re not kicking it to Blink 182 and Jimmy Eat World as you brew your morning coffee?
“I like records where the artist has something he or she wants to express,” Stamey explained, “and that was what was holding me back from recording, because I didn’t really feel that need to go out and get up on the soapbox.”
Travels in the South is thematically heavy by traditional Stamey standards, but that heaviness is leavened with plenty of bounce and breeziness. The outcome is a rare and welcome thing: an album that is both deep and eminently listenable. How did Stamey pull it off?
“When you are in a mode of right-brain thinking, there’s a kind of euphoria with that, and I always try to write right at that time, and get caught up in the inevitability of it,” Stamey said. “When I’m the person who writes, I am young, and I feel pretty young every day anyway. All records are a combination of euphoria and digging ditches—you’ve got to have both of those elements going on.”
Euphoria indeed. From the beginning, Travels in the South revels in the stuff, starting with the whoosh of a departing plane after which Stamey sings “Here’s where we get off / We live right down the street,”—the double meaning of that first line letting you know straightaway that Stamey hasn’t lost a step.
“That track (“Fourteen Shades of Green”) is a song that is looking back on youth, while at the same time saying ‘carpe diem,’” Stamey pointed out. “I was trying to do something psychoactive, as opposed to psychedelic.”
Stamey sneaks an old-fashioned tell-off track into the second part of the album with “Alive”, which starts off with an acerbic put-down worthy of a young Bob Dylan: “You say you’re alive / But how would I know / For all that you do / You’ve nothin’ to show.” Naturally it’s also among the most chipper tracks on the album.
“That song is addressing someone who is just drifting aimlessly through their existence,” Stamey said, “and yet that opening lyric comes in the sonic context of, well, like a real comfortable suit and tie. The music is kind of like the Byrds—it’s something you can relax and listen to, but lyrically, at least to me, it’s in your face.”
Stamey doesn’t regularly sample the latest offerings of Lil’ Flip and the Dirty South crew, so his definition of “in your face” is naturally a little more refined. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, even the punchy pop genre that he’s typically associated with has its offensive tendencies. “I don’t wear my power pop shoes proudly,” he confessed. “There seems to be a misogynistic theme that runs through a lot of it that I’m not particularly fond of. That Knack record, for example.”
Really? “My Sharona?”
“Yeah,” he said plainly. So after the interview I looked up the lyrics, and I’ll be damned if I never noticed that it was a nasty little ode to underage lovin’. But back to Stamey: Even though Travels in the South is a “mature” or “grown-up” album, it definitely doesn’t sound like one—and that incongruity is what makes it such a strong piece of work. Or, maybe it has a little something to do with Stamey being a wildly gifted songwriter who, after all these years, hasn’t forgotten what makes “pop” pop.
“A long time ago,” Stamey said thoughtfully, “When the first Big Star record came out, ‘When My Baby’s Beside Me’ was a big hit in Winston-Salem. I always remembered how fast I was driving without realizing it when I heard that song in the car, and I always held that up as a place I’d like to go—the quality and the throttle. I really like to think of 9-volt batteries—a little power pack, you know? You put it on your tongue and you get that little shock from it. I like to make songs like that.”